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Leopold's: Austrian Food Served with a Bootful of Beer 

Wednesday, Apr 20 2011
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The table next to us at Leopold's cheered as a beaming server, her décolletage framed in Teutonic ruffles, hoisted a couple of 18-inch-tall boots filled with beer onto their table. I measured up the glass boots — which looked like they could fit a sturdy 10-year-old — then did the same to the six young customers. That amount of pilsner was going to do some damage.

"Have you heard about the boot game?" I asked my tablemate, who was gaping at them. "You're supposed to pass it around the table; the first person drinks toe up, then the next person turns the glass to drink toe down. Everyone drinks cautiously, though, because at a certain point, the beer in the toe is going to gush out."

But our neighbors didn't seem to know about the passing part, because the waitress came back, lugging two more boots. Meanwhile, my friend and I were slicing into a plate of pig trotters ($9.75), the lower shank meat boned, rolled into a large cylinder, and braised; the roulade was sliced into rounds and pan-fried, so the surfaces crisped without draining the trotter cake of the internal mosaic of lean pork and jiggly, custardy fat. Each bite was unctuous, salty, and almost overwhelmingly savory, but it was counterbalanced with a kicky salad of frisée, fingerling potatoes, and the liquid-yolked surprise of one tiny, perfectly poached quail egg.

We heard another squeal and turned. Two more boots, even more gigantic than the other four, had arrived. One of the dudes at the table passed over a phone and asked us to snap a photo of the group. As I passed it back, I had to know. "How big are those?" I called out. "Two liters!" he hollered back. They weren't just guaranteed to get splashed but sloshed as well. Hey, it was almost Friday night.

I wouldn't have remarked on the scene if I didn't observe similar ones throughout the course of my two meals at Leopold's, Klaus and Albert Rainer's 3-month-old Austrian restaurant on the border of Russian Hill and Cow Hollow. Leopold's can't have gauged the neighborhood more astutely: The mood is casual and celebratory, burnished with enough European-ness to spark nostalgia for a thousand summer trips. Same with the entrée prices, which average $15; the solid but not gut-busting food, which is often quite good; and the neighborhood appeal of giant steins of beer. Albert mans the door, shaggy-haired and dressed in a gingham shirt. For all his experience starting up Hyde Street Bistro and running Cafe Metropol, he has the air of a man delighted, if a bit abashed, to find himself at the helm of a booming restaurant. Even when he's apologizing to you for the fact that you won't sit down in less than an hour, you want to clap him on the back and congratulate him on his good fortune.

The vivid saffron exterior of Leopold's gives way to a paler lemon inside, the decorating motif a blend of a country tavern and the contents of your great-grandmother's china hutch. Blond wood tables and booths ring the room, with a wide communal table bisecting the space from back bar to front door. The Rainers have ensured that just about every seat looks up on tiny antlers — Austrian roe deer. Clusters of them are mounted above the picture rail, framing ornate plates, crosses, and portraits of alpine dwellers, some of whom look awfully like the Rainers themselves. It's hard not to enjoy the place, as long as you follow one rule: Avoid the communal table, even if it means waiting another half an hour. Situated at the room's acoustic vortex, the spot gets so loud that your server, standing over your shoulder, won't be able to hear you order.

It's possible, of course, to order beer in smaller half-liter steins — though if you order one of Leopold's hard-to-find Belgian ales on tap, like the higher-alcohol St. Bernardus or Affligem, you're setting yourself up for a woozy morning after. A small stemmed glass of Köstritzer was all it took to remind me how much I enjoy the black lager. The Rainers also take advantage of the fact that Austrian and Hungarian wines are simultaneously hip and affordable, and their grüners and zweigelts all cost less than $35 a bottle.

If the current issue of Food & Wine magazine is to be believed, Austrian food is showing well right now among the trend observant, and Leopold's appetizers are a good example why. The pork trotters, for instance, didn't come off nearly as fatty as I imagined. An excellent salad of roasted beets ($6.75), greens, shaved fennel, and darkly toasted walnuts was tossed with a creamy dressing spiked with enough horseradish to bite without drawing blood and an elusive note of fennel seed. And the highlight of my two visits may have been the vegetable strudel ($6.75), a stack of sautéed kale, mushrooms, and carrots wrapped in a halo of golden pastry, with a pool of herb-flecked sour cream for swiping and a salad of frisée and pickled shallots to counteract the butter and cream.

The surprise of the strudel was its seasoning — garlic and oregano, huh?! In fact, the Rainers' background is Italian-Austrian, and they describe their food as representing both the Austrian and the Italian sides of the Alps. Right now, the Italian side comes through only in a halfhearted mushroom pappardelle ($11.75). Staying on the subject of dishes that weren't so fantastic: a Linzer torte ($5.75) for dessert that shows little evidence of the Austrian genius for desserts, and a hunk of braised shortribs ($16.75) that needed another hour or two in the pot. That said, the beef came with a heap of braised red cabbage, quietly sweet-tart.

Even at its meatiest, the food comes off as fresh and brightly flavored. The wiener schnitzel ($12.75) almost touches the borders of the platter it's served on, but the wavy golden cutlet is barely a quarter-inch thick, and there's no sheen of excess oil on its crisp, golden surface. The bratwurst, braised pork ribs, and pink-centered smoked pork loin dominating the choucroute garnie ($17.75) aren't the focal point of the dish: the mound of caraway-flecked sauerkraut is. The Rainers' take on Hungarian goulash ($12.75, $15 with a small glass of Spaten), spikes the boldly seasoned, paprika-reddened pork stew with caraway, too. The stew makes up half of a swirling yin-yang symbol on the plate, its complement a pile of nubbly, delicate spaetzle.

Why the prospect of wiener schnitzel, braised lamb shank, and chicken with chestnut dumplings incites so many people to test the limits of their tolerance for beer, I can't say, but Leopold's food is good enough to attract diners like me who are out for an evening, not a bender. If you're one of the latter, though, here's a tip: The restaurant has posted a photo of its five-liter stein on its Facebook page. I don't want to be around when you reach the bottom.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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